Like the Lone Ranger, Forest Ranger Doug Chassereau wears a white hat, but a lot of people can't see it. Leaders of the Portal Heritage Society said have seen it plainly and frequently because Society members say he has ridden to the rescue of the Catface Country Turpentine Festival so many times.
When the still to process a charge of gum (raw pine tar) is fired Saturday on the first day of the 2010 festival, he will have made his mark on every part of the still before the furnace is lit. In fact, he will provide wood for the fire, too.
Chassereau, chief ranger for the Georgia Forestry Commission in Emanuel County, started at the festival helping to fire the still, but his role increased significantly in 2005. Commercial turpentining ended in the United States in 2001, so no gum was available to run the still for the festival. He responded by working enough trees on family land to produce the gum and deliver it to the still. He worked alone attaching the hardware, streaking the trees and dipping the gum. All at no charge.
He did this for four years until damage to his grandmother's trees by turpentine beetles forced him to end his one-man crusade to preserve a remnant of the naval stores culture in the South. At that point, he was the last person to produce a significant amount of gum by the open-face method in the Untied States. When the festival was held without firing the still in 2009, Chassereau was probably most unhappy of all. And no one was happier when Jerry Lanigan, vice president of the Heritage Society, found gum to purchase from Mexico to run the still for this year's festival.
Chassereau explained his passion the Turpentine Festival in two ways - family heritage and cultural heritage.
"My family has been involved in turpentining for generations, going back to Liberty County before Fort Stewart displaced people from the land," he said. "My granddaddy, David Butler, bought some land in Bryan County and continued to work turpentine part-time. At age 12, I sold my first barrel of gum and became the youngest member of the American Turpentine Farmers Association."
He continued, "As much as I loved my granddaddy, my greatest inspiration was Uncle Mark. He suffered from cystic fibrosis, but did not let it keep him out of the woods. He worked turpentine wearing an oxygen bottle. He was happiest there. He taught me a lot about courage and the value of turpentining as a way of life. He was with me here in Portal for the first years of the Turpentine Festival."
It was the disappearance of the naval stores industry from the United States that fired Chassereau's zeal to enlighten the public about its importance.
"Suddenly, in 2001, it was gone without notice or comment," he said. "In one form or other, naval stores had been an important part of the economy since the start of the British settlement, almost 400 years. It was very important in southern Georgia, the second largest source of income in Georgia, after cotton, for many years. Thousands of people depended on it for a living. I did not want all that to just fade away and be forgotten. Someone should want to carry it on."
While Chassereau hopes that the industry might return on a reduced scale with improved technology and pest control and a strong market for turpentine and rosin, he does not think it will happen soon. Still, he continues to study and experiment.
Chassereau even has a suggestion to ensure gum is available for future festivals.
"We need cooperative landowners to help us," he said. "If they are planning to cut a tract of timber several months or a year in the future, they can allow us to use the bore hole method to collect gum without risking loss of trees. We can get in and out before the beetles do any damage and the bore hole does not use up part of the tree like an open cat face."
But right now, there is this weekend's festival and gum is on hand. Chassereau helped Lanigan repair the cooling tank and rosin vat. He is cleaning up the spirits house and preparing to bring in exhibit items from his own treasury. He will help David King, the Agrirama stiller, fire the still on Saturday. And Chassereau will lend a hand as exhibit interpreter and lecturer on Sunday.
That's why Heritage society members believe someone should buy him a white hat.